Tony Soprano's Decadent Society

David Chase's prophetic vision and the question of when decadence becomes decline.

The Sopranos, the best show in television history and the last great work of popular art produced in the American imperium (I exaggerate, or do I?), was a touchstone for The Decadent Society: Tony himself, with his famous line that “lately, I’m getting the feeling that I came in at the end … The best is over,” as a spokesman for the feeling of untimeliness that decadence induces; the show as a whole as an example of how the way to make serious art under decadent conditions is to hold a mirror up to decadence itself. So naturally I really enjoyed Willy Staley’s essay, in our Sunday magazine, portraying The Sopranos as a ‘90s-era prophecy-cum-revelation of dystopic end-of-empire trends — trends which were glimpsed through the haze of Clinton-era optimism and pseudo-renaissance by the seer David Chase, and now flower in full all around a generation that’s too young to remember the first time “Woke Up This Morning” blared on Sunday night HBO, but sees itself in Tony and his progeny in a way the more comfortable original viewers, slumming it at the Bada Bing at the apparent peak of the American empire, never did.

One of the many good lines from Staley on this theme:

It is this quality of Tony’s — this combination of privilege and self-loathing — that I suspect resonates with a younger generation, whether we want to admit it or not. He’s not so different from us, after all. He has an anxiety disorder. He goes to therapy and takes S.S.R.I.s, but never really improves — not for long, anyway. He has a mild case of impostor syndrome, having skipped some key steps to becoming boss, and he knows that people who hold it against him are sort of right. He’s still proud of his accomplishments in high school. He does psychedelics in the desert, and they change his perspective on things. He often repeats stuff he half-remembers someone smarter than him saying. He’s arguably in an open marriage with Carmela, if a rather lopsided one. He liked listening to “Don’t Stop Believin’” in 2007. He’s impulsive and selfish and does not go to church, though he does seem open to vaguer notions of spirituality. He wishes his career provided him with meaning, but once he had the career, he discovered that someone had pulled the rug out at some point, and an institution that had been a lodestar to him for his whole life was revealed to be a means of making money and nothing more. Does this sound at all familiar to you?

There’s more in that vein, read the whole thing — but naturally I have a mild disagreement with the dirtbag-socialist account of American decline that Staley uses as a framing device:

This new structural reading of “The Sopranos” was encapsulated neatly by Felix Biederman, a co-host of the leftist podcast “Chapo Trap House.” Recording another podcast in November 2020 — after the presidential election was held but before it was called for Biden, a moment when nothing in this country seemed to be working — Biederman argued that the show is, at its heart, about the bathetic nature of decline. “Decline not as a romantic, singular, aesthetically breathtaking act of destruction,” he said, but as a humiliating, slow-motion slide down a hill into a puddle of filth. “You don’t flee a burning Rome with your beautiful beloved in your arms, barely escaping a murderous horde of barbarians; you sit down for 18 hours a day, enjoy fewer things than you used to, and take on the worst qualities of your parents while you watch your kids take on the worst qualities of you.”

So on the one hand yes, real decline can be less romantic and violent and more gradual and grinding that certain images of barbarian invasions might lead one to expect. But on the other hand real decline, the genuine world-historical article, is a lot more painful than what Biederman is describing here, or what America has experienced between the debut of The Sopranos and the election of Joe Biden. And the kind of person people who thinks we’ve already been living through what Staley’s subtitle calls “terminal decline” — that this is what the end of empire looks like in the 21st century, this depression and consumerist malaise and institutional sclerosis — is going to have a nasty surprise awaiting them if the real end of the American empire actually shows up.

That’s the point of using a term like decadence to describe our situation: Because it gets at the realities that Biederman and Staley are describing and that Chase’s show depicts, while distinguishing those realities from the more severe punishment and misery that comes in when comfortable stagnation gives way to a sudden fall. In the specific case of Tony Soprano, it lets you acknowledge the ways that life has gotten worse for the upper-middle class population whose experience is distilled and sharpened by being embodied in a mobster, but also the ways in which it’s still pretty comfortable, still materially secure even if it’s spiritually barren, because under conditions of true decline you probably wouldn’t be able to stage a nice suburban pool party in your McMansion that helps you hook up with your estranged wife while your friend is passed out in a nearby lawn chair …

Accounts of American decline from the pessimistic right, as opposed the Chapo left, increasingly reference the Soviet Union and draw analogies between our late-stage empire and the fall of our old enemy — which had its own fertility collapse, its own creaking gerontocracy, its own substance-abuse issues and “deaths of despair,” its own ignominious withdrawal from Afghanistan and more. And maybe we are destined to go the way of the USSR, complete with a post-2024 breakup between red regions and blue ones.

But for now, comparing our recent situation to the Russian situation in the 1990s provides a useful way to think about the difference between decadence and decline. Here is our own economic decadence, in one chart showing how growth has persistently disappointed over the last 15-20 years:

Not great! But now here’s Russian GDP from 1988 to the turn of the millennium:

The first chart is decadence; the second chart is decline. And whether you’re a mobster, a podcaster or a pundit, I promise you: decline is a lot worse.

Contrasting years of disappointing growth with a true economic collapse is the easiest way to quantify the decadence/decline difference. But here are a few other ways one might think about the distinction:

Decadence is fighting an endless war in Afghanistan and finally giving up, long after it fell off the radar of national debate, without any immediate effects on our national security or economic position. Decline would be losing a war with China and suffering sudden economic and domestic political shocks as a result.

Decadence is spending more and more money, running truly epic deficits, in order to goose a slow-growth economy toward 2.2 percent growth per annum instead of 1.9 percent. Decline would be running those deficits and seeing them yield stagflation and declining living standards instead of just disappointing growth.

Decadence is having a pointless debt ceiling rule that eats up months of energy every couple of years but doesn’t really spook the markets because it’s understood that a last-minute deal will get done with the party in power runs out of other options. Decline would be actually defaulting on your debt.

Decadence is Donald Trump getting elected president, flailing for four years, trying to overturn an election and getting nobody important to go along with him. Decline would be Trump successfully pushing the United States into a constitutional crisis, serious internecine violence, and sectional break-up.

Decadence is when you deal with a spiraling crime rate and the post-1960s urban collapse through a combination of mass incarceration, mass surveillance, high abortion rates in poor communities and the lure of virtual entertainments to keep kids off the street. Decline would be if something happens, some shock or shift, so that your crime-management strategy doesn’t work any more, and the murder rate starts spiraling up and up again.

Decadence is sitting in a shadowy restaurant with your family, realizing that you’re miserable and corrupt and your life hasn’t worked out like you hoped, but you’re still on top, still the boss, so it can just go on like this, day after unhappy day, always looking over you shoulder waiting for someone to come along and try to knock you off. Decline would be if a guy in a Members Only jacket came up behind you and

(I swear I didn’t steal this joke from Sonny Bunch. It just fell off a truck.)